CORNELIUS (NEAL) O'LEARY
Q. When did you go over ?
I went over in May of 1973. I came from DIA as an analyst and went over as a Signals Collection Officer. I was stationed in the DAO at Tan Son Nhut rather than the DAO downtown. General Murray was our boss. Most of us that came from DIA -- DIA had kind of taken over the role of DAO. It makes sense because the Defense Attache Offices were run out of DIA at that time. A lot of DIA people were in there for three month tour or six month tour and they were rotated in and out just to maintain this transition from all-military MACV to whatever the DAO would be. Some type of support and somewhere between the role of a standard DAO and a large MACV-Military Assistance Program. It was a hodge podge and that's the role we served. The intelligence there was a relatively small staff and we were geared basically to provide U.S. intelligence to U.S. people. In other words, take what the Vietnamese were doing in their J2s and in many cases translate that into English and get that to the Americans or to Washington.
We still perform the role and Doug did it and Bill Laurie did the same thing. That was the current intelligence element. You worked in a vaulted area and it was current intelligence. And you took all the information to the Vietnamese, to the U.S., combined it and tried to give the best picture you could of that particular area.
Q. So you worked with Colonel Loan???
They did. I didn't. My role was more one of liaison and forwarding the DAO/Vietnamese intelligence requirements, collection requirements through the U.S. system. They were still doing--I don't think it's classified any more, but it's still doing collection in Nakhon Phanom . . . and a variety of other sources.
Q. They were also sending in targets for bombing raids, LeGroh and Loan told me, right down to the last week.
There was a lot of planning. It was a lot of hoping??? Through the two years I was there, --I got out on one of the last C130s so that should give you a date of when I got out. When they finally lost one or two on the airstrip that was the end of the C130 flights. So my role was really one of intelligence collection requirements. I talked with people in the current intelligence shop and said, "Okay, what are your desires? What do you want?" I would then get to the confidante???? or elsewhere, back to the states here and adjust our requirements to meet the needs of the U.S. staff.
The U.S. staff was often talking -- I talked to Loan and his people and would come back, basically.
Q. Originally your job was not to watch a dying country.
No. That was my goal. The analogy was so strong you couldn't get away in the states with Vietnam. Everybody knew where it was, I worked across the hall. I was the China analyst, and being the China analyst you're intimately involved in Vietnam, for a whole variety of reasons, and Southeast Asia in general. It's a war zone and China was involved.
Q. You expected Vietnam to survive when you arrived, didn't you?
No. Not at all. In '73 I expected it to fall. I think the Administration had done the right thing. They took the worst situation possible and just said, "We declare victory. We have a peace treaty, we've won, we pull our troops out. The Vietnamization program works, therefore there is no need for us to be there." They literally to the best of anybody's knowledge, declared victory, withdrew, and said the Vietnamese can defend their own country, obviously. They hadn't been doing to well, even with the aid of the French all the way through our assistance, so to me I had no misgivings, but I was not under the illusion that they were going to win. It was a matter to me of when they were going to fall.
Q. Murray and others, weren't thinking along those lines. You have to be the pessimist in the group.
No, I was to be the realist. You forget that those people were psychologically committed to Vietnam, LeGroh especially. Murray, I don't know how long he had in country, but he was very emotionally involved, they were his people, they were his little brown brothers. And that was a wrong statement-- most of them got too involved. Al Shockley's point was that everybody gets so involved with the people they lost their objectivity. I think LeGroh, Murray, and Homer Smith not so much--I think Smith was more of a realist, but he came later. Therefore he had the cut, much like me. He came in with no experience and no desire to see them win or lose. I was there to do a job.
On the other side of it, individually or personally I was there to draw the analogies and maybe do like you're doing, write a book on China and try to draw from the experiences of Vietnam and apply it to the China '45 to '49, the fall of Nationalist China.
My belief was this: One, that the country would fall and two, there would probably not be a bloodbath. And that's basically my frequency of ideas.
Q. You concluded that at the time of the Paris Agreements?
Yeah, I really knew nothing about Vietnam. I finally read Salinger's book and that gave me a nice historical perspective and I said, "Well, what we've got is Chinese that have spent too long in the south. They just keep pushing down and eventually push the Cambodians out and you've got the China flow. And then I read Fire in the Lake and, of course, I didn't believe that book because it was much too pessimistic. In the end Fitzgerald was probably more right than anybody else.
Q. When you got there and analyzied the situation personally, and got acclimated to the thinking of the Vietnamese, the supply system --did you change your thinking at all?
No, I don't think I ever changed. I was surprised at the end of the year that I was still there.
Q. In '73? They didn't lose any country in '73.
I think what happened to me, I thought that the North Vietnamese would continue to press on all sides and I think a lot of us thought this, in a slow constriction much like the boa constrictor, crush here and then where it's weak, crush somewhere else and eventually a province would be lost here and a province or maybe even half a province. I don't think that our problem in dealing with the situation -- as an intelligence analyst you normally don't collect on both sides. You collect against the enemy. In 1973 or '74, I think the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped their analysis or collection of the ARVN forces and it fell then by default to those of us in country. To make a net assessment you need to assess both sides. It sounds logical, but often times you are blinded and fail to realize that. So you collect on the enemy and you begin to believe your own lies. The Vietnamese are good, they are wonderful, look at Colonel Leuong???, he speaks wonderful English, he must be a wonderful man. But we didn't have the people really in the field. We were really prohibited, probably by the NCH??? from really putting people in the field with the Twenty-fifth Division. We did towards the end, not in a fighting context, but down in the division to at the division. What we were finding, we were appalled that they weren't as strong as we thought they were, ARVN, and that basically some divisions were good and some were bad and that the politics of the President and the General Staff really built or destroyed a division. If the man was good and a good leader, his division was good. If he was a good leader and a threat to central, he didn't get the supplies or he got cashiered or sent someplace else. So you really had the traditional Asian intrigue and politics going on. At least I felt that.
Q. I think that up in ICORPS, Treung was up there --
We all liked Treung. He seemed to be a fighter's fighter. Again, having only spent two years there and having no background and basically not dealing in there, that's why again I say, I don't really know why we're talking, because I can't give you that insight into the Vietnamese, north or south. I maybe can give you an insight into the U.S. thinking or at least one individual's knowledge of what went on. And it is a very thin odd slice.
Q. There were briefings with all the defense agencies there and exchanged information. Or did that process take place back in Washington?
It took place at a variety of levels.
Q. Murray told me, you know Polgar bugged the President's palace.
I heard of that.
Q. Oh, I thought you heard the tapes. He played them for Murray. They thought this was the greatest bug ever planted. . . . . And all these guys are doing is cracking dirty jokes about other guys' wives. It sounded like Polgar played this tape for everybody.
No, I was not in the inner circle by any means. Part of it was the compartmentation I was working in. I didn't want access--I denied myself access to a lot of things. And also what I was doing was none of the Vietnames' business in any case.
Q. During '73, you analyzed the army, saw it was pretty much like an Asian army, well-supplied, mechanized.
Seemed to be all right. My problem was of course the United States Government had -- I'm starting to feel at this time that maybe they had a chance but not sure. The only way they are going to have a chance is if the U.S. government gives them more money. And money in many cases is the best, but it's got to get to the soldiers, not to the leaders.
Q. You had looked at the Chinese army. Was the Vietnamese army any more corrupt than any other Asian army?
Probably no more than any other nationalist army. Definitely it was not a communist army which tends to be pretty rigid because of the political system. Corruption does not run rampant by any means. It was a standard army. I served in Korea in '67 and '68. I can't that was a corrupt army by any means, but the generals didn't do too badly on their meager salary even back then. So it was fraught with the same things as any other.
Q. You didn't see the situation better at the end of '73 than it was when you came there either?
I don't think so. Again, I wasn't an analyst. If anything I was looking at a larger picture of "are we going to be evacuated tomorrow or next week?" I saw them doing well. It would frustrate us to see the congressmen come over, or the GAO which everybody hated, because the GAO would go, "No, that tank is only partially destroyed and you can't call it destroyed, and therefore you must rebuild it, and we can't give you a one for one replacement on that tank." It's the typical white-collar -- I'm not attached to the white-collar. ..
Q. I did Welch a couple days ago. He was one of the head accountants for what was going on over there. His people were going all around. Their problem was they were at war with the Vietnamese.
They were. They were at war with the war. They really were. God love them, they were doing their job the way they saw it, but it's much like a security officer who imposes so many restrictions on you that you can't do your job and therefore there is no security problem, and therefore he has succeeded. However, you have failed. Somewhere you draw the line. You're impeding the operation. You lost sight of the fact that there is a war on. Usually you can fight a lot better with equipment that works.
Q. In '74 there's also not much action, except the budget cutbacks start. Did you in analyzing intelligence at that time, also see a disturbing buildup in traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail?
I don't know. I may have back then, but I can't remember ten years later. It seems to me the Ho Chi Minh trail by that time wasn't like it was like I remember it during the war, by any means. I don't want to say the North Vietnamese were doing nothing. I remember activity of sorts, and again psychologically that was two years in my life and it stopped basically in '75. And I just don't read about it. I don't read about China because I don't work China. I read about management and planning because that's what I work.
Q. In late '74 is the attack on Phuoc Luong province in January. Now do you see the light at the end of the tunnel ???
No. That's only the hammer striking the anvil making the sound and people are then aware that the blacksmith is awake. It's my own personal opinion--my contacts with Vietnamese were basically bar girls and the lower strata. There was an internal decay--I hate to be trite. There was a lack of faith in the people and you could feel it in conversations. And I would love to run around and talk to the people, those that could speak English. I spoked no Vietnamese. My fault and I apologize, but however, I didn't speak it. So my contacts were with those that were in my compound, lived on the economy in a walled villa with a swimming pool. My neighbors in there had parties so I met a lot of Vietnamese, a lot of American contractors. I met a kind of cross section of what was out there, probably middle class, upper middle, to really low class when I went crawling in the bars--Doug and I went crawling in the bars.
I think there was a lack of faith. People were kind of waiting for the next shoe to drop and I think they saw this time it wasn't Dien Bien Phu. They expected after that, I think, somebody else to come in. I think Fitzgerald really had them down. They're almost a childlike people that need somebody to lead them. I hate to make glittering generalities like that, but I'll give you at least one story or two.
The fall of Phuoc Luong is the big hammer. It comes down and they say, "My god, I can't believe it. We've never lost a province. This is it." And that's the climax of Vietnam as far as I'm concerned. That really is it. When Phuoc Luong fell I think people lost confidence. I think they looked around and said, in maybe a very classical Asian sense, "You have lost face. You have lost a province. You have never lost a province before." And I think it broke the moral courage, if that's the proper phrase. I think it broke the back, and from that point forward, and that's a long time forward, but I think there's a different tone and a different feeling. There's less confidence. There's less confidence in the Americans and there's more reliance then on "You'll bring the B52 bombers in, won't you?" You'll give us that supplemental, won't you?" It became a reliance again on the Americans to do something.
I don't know what you've heard from Truong or anybody else, but when you talk to Vietnamese and the military contingent, ask them at Phuoc Luong if they expected or asked for the B-52s to come in to relieve the capital. They did not realize that America was out of the war. We were not going to send planes over. The last planes over Vietnam were intelligence collection planes.
Q. But I thought there was a guarantee by Nixon and Kissinger. If you have an ally and they make guarantees, you obviously have to believe the guarantees, because your ally is your ally. They had assurances that if there was a breaking of the Paris agreement that we would provide them with massive retaliation as we did in Christmas 1972, that we would throw our weight around.
That's what they believed.
Did the South Vietnamese sign the accords or was it just North and the U.S.?
Q. No, they signed them too. What was the second example?
The first place I lived was in a compound more towards Saigon itself, and the owner of the compound was Vietnamese married to a Chinese woman, and he was Public Health Director for MR3. I would sit and talk with him, and he was somewhat anti-government, in the government but anti-government. " The reason I didn't see you when you came in, I was in Japan in a medical conference. I couldn't take my wife because they won't let my wife leave the country, a hostage." And he said to me, very simply, he said, if you want to win this war, if you want to make us safe for democracy, just make us the fifty-first state, and he was dead serious. No smiles. He was dead serious. Just make us a state. No one invades the United States. Wonderful logic. They probably couldn't afford the income tax. So he kind of shook his head.
The other story is probably not as funny or even compelling. But I was talking to a driver who spoke relatively good English and he was talking about the French. He said, "I always felt comfortable with the French. I knew where I stood. When I did a good job they patted me on the head and when I did a bad job they kicked me in the ass." He said, "The Americans don't do that. I just never know where I am. I don't know if you are helping me or hindering me. I need you to tell me what to do."
So I think Fitzgerald hit it. That's the thrust of her book in any case.
Q. Did you start looking over your shoulder after the fall of Phuoc Luong?
No, there's a certain amount of "if they're not next door, I don't care."
Q. After Tet, you never feared anything like that did you?
No, I don't think so. I think most of us figured a fairly decent set piece, pitched battle, give and take, maybe something strong enough or large enough that maybe the B-52s would come. We were as gullible as the Vietnamese.
As the situation deteriorated and then all of a sudden collapsed--"collapse" is the most wonderful word, because that's what it did. It collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was obvious the U.S. were not coming, there was no supplemental. There was desire of the U.S. government to do anything.
You also have the problem of now having a new president. Nixon is out. Now you have a new set of players, really.
Q. Did they appreciate it that much in Vietnam?
I don't know.
Q. Did you? It really shouldn't be that dramatic a change in our policy.
Oh, I think so. I don't a President can -- a President can't do much for the country. The best he can do is lead when he should lead, and follow when he should follow, but he can't move it off the general path the government has taken. He can change it a degree here, a degree there. But with Nixon's unpredictability, the Soviets said they never knew what the man was going to do. Frightened of him and yet he speaks the truth at times. I think Nixon's unpredictability it may have been a different story, but given the American politics of the time, Gerald Ford was not going to go back and bomb, spend American weapons and American aircraft over Vietnam. If anyone told you that I think they're crazy.
Q. What about the congressional delegation in Feb. '75? Did you meet them?
No. I heard about it. Bella was her usual wonderful self, obnoxious. I guess McCloskey was out there to find the "truth". All I can remember, obviously you remember the people. In something like that you don't need congressmen out there making fact finding tours. You really need help. You don't need hindrances. And they created an immense amount of security problems, demands on a very small staff that you didn't need.
The Americans' problem over there, we were too few in too many places. My second half I went from the esoteric national collection systems and all that in '73 and '74, and from middle '74 until I left I kept that job and I had two or three people working for me scheduling the buffalo hunter drone missions over country. And I went to the front office and what I did there, it was the collection and liaison division, and I then was the operations officer, a.k.a. a kind of deputy to the division chief. He worked for Bill LeGroh to put the structure in line. We as a division were in charge of all of U.S. human intelligence collection throughout Vietnam.
Q. So you saw Laurie's and Dearth's --
Saw Laurie's films -- well, see, their stuff didn't come in. I think what you need l-- maybe the structure would help --
Those guys were in Saigon and the states and all they did was analyze. They made occasional trips out. That was restricted to some degree. One, they had their own schedule of briefing and they couldn't do a lot of "Hey, let's go spend two weeks, and so forth." So you had a two or three day trip, which you can't do too much. The best you can do is talk.
What we did in the C&L, the Collection and Liaison Division, we sent two to three to four people, U.S. types, as DAO representatives to each of the MRs and they were our in-MR source, and their role was to grab as much locale information and intelligence as possible and forward it down for analysis. Make their own analysis if they so cared to, but basically most of them were not trained intelligence officers. They were local Americans that had been there for a while.
Q. What kind of reports were you getting then on MR2 after Phuoc Luong and after the congressional visit in early March? Were you expecting a second hammer to fall on Kontum and Pleiku?
Yes. Most definitely. That was the thrust, and when it got to be Ban Me Thuot eventually, I think it even threw Doug. I don't think even he was ready for Ban Me Thuot. He figured the push on the highlands, kind of a classical push down through the higlands, out to the ocean, cut the country in half at MR2 and a delightful place to do it, keep the lobsters in the north and just play. That's the scenario I was seeing. I couldn't see them committing. Of course our intelligence -- I guess it wasn't bad, but it really didn't have that fine-grained intelligence that you want. You were dealing in -- intelligence is a large jigsaw puzzle. You have certain bits of information you put in, and you have large areas that you have no pieces for. So you continue to collect and try to fill the puzzle. And then certain times you're asked to make judgments on that puzzle and you make them. If you have large open spaces, obviously your judgment isn't as good as if those spaces were filled and you had the picture.
I don't know what we expected, but I know I found a change in listening to our monthly briefings in that we started probably as early as January '74, maybe before Phuoc Luong saying that they were not going to win. We didn't say it in so many words, but basically it is an untenable situation. It is a no-win situation, a matter of time. Most people were not saying that. They were saying, "Look at them, they've lasted a year, isn't that wonderful." Yes, that's wonderful.
Q. When you initially heard of the attack on Ban Me Thuot, did you think it might have been a fake and that the big blow would fall on Pleiku?
I think that's what they were looking at. Again I was not an analysy. But I think that's what everybody believed. I don't remember the North Vietnamese division that was there, the 324th, 327th, whatever it was, apparently , I think, it was a good division. They just didn't expect it there. I think they saw that as a feint. Of course it turned out not to be.
Q. Then Ban Me Thuot falls, and the conference at Cam Ranh takes place. How good was our intelligence? We knew the President left and went to Cam Ranh. When did you learn that Thieu was going to withdraw from the highlands.
I don't know. I have no idea.
Q. When did word start coming in that the Highlands were falling apart?
The morning of the attack on Ban Me Thuot was the start. I don't remember the sequence of Pleiku going as well. It's ten years old and I did not read up on it.
Q. What do you start finding then during the collapse?
You find something as crazy as, was it Ngha Trang? where they evacuate, everybody withdraws because "The North Vietnamese are Coming." And some security captain walks into headquarters, picks up the phone and says, "Hey, who's in charge here?" Calls Saigon, "Who's in charge? I'm standing here." "Where are the North Vietnamese?" "There aren't any. There's no one here, just me."
You get a very good feeling when you talk to Tom. Tom was in the highlands and evacuated himself out of the highlands. He's a good man.
Q. The word was they were losing the war faster than the North Vietnamese could win the war.
That's what we all -- obviously that case. I will give you some stuff.
Q. Did you start predicting when you would be leaving the country then?
I didn't know. I really was at a point of "Now what do I do?" The first think I want to do is pack my whole baggage and get the good stuff out, which we all rushed around to do. But what happened, interestingly enough from my point of view is as it started to fall and go to hell quickly, we stopped reporting. The Americans I saw became more interested in getting out and getting things squared away in country than in many cases in doing their job.
Q. What do you mean, "squared away"?
Making sure that they got the gold that needed to buy downtown at a good price and get out of country. Making sure that their household effects were shipped or on their way.
Q. That couldn't have helped morale.
Oh, no, certainly. Then you've got the problem the Vietnamese see these Vietnamese come and pack you goods, what is going on? It got then to be for me a very emotional thing.
Q. You mean your response to it becomes emotional?
Because now it becomes more -- it's not quite that I'm an observer. All of us are no longer observers, or collectors or analyzers. We became involved in not only making sure that we got out of the country but that the people that we worked with and those that we loved got out of the country as well.
Smith orders a partial evacuation, really a surreptitious evacuation. There are C130s going back empty. There are C5As going back empty, and the reality of the whole thing comes with the C5A crash because surreptitiously the people on the C5A that are holding the babies are DAO secretaries. We moved our secretaries out and kept a very small staff.
Q. What did you think of that C5A disaster?
It was devastating. I lost two secretaries. I lost my secretary from the back of my compartment secretary, Martha, and I lost a secretary from the C&L Division. So that was trauma to me. And there is maybe the climax to the American involvement. That brought, to many of us, brought Vietnam very close to home, that no longer were the Vietnamese bodies being torn apart, but all of a sudden, you know, we didn't have the image of the GI lying in the trenches, but you did have the image of a person you knew and talked with and worked with being carried on a stretcher with half her head gone. And you look and say, Jesus Christ I know that person, or that's Martha, or that was Martha. So the emotion hits hard there for a lot of people. You're not quite in a daydream, because you are doing your job and trying to get other things straightened away, but basically that, at least to me is the start of the end.
Q. What about Ed Daly out there? Did you hear about that last flight from DaNang when it took place?
I remember reading about it and that was about it.
Q. Did you run into him at all?
No, I didn't know anybody. I really didn't.
Q. He was a pretty flamboyant guy.
John Wayne stuff.
Q. After the C5A did it shake you?
Yeah, I think emotionally it was a real shocker. And also, I don't know with myself, I have to look with 20-20 hindsight, and maybe there was a little somewhere in the back of all our minds that maybe we won't get out either. Because I think we all really felt that the cavalry's going to come in and take us out and we're going to fly away and leave this country. The communists won't get me because my forces wil be here, the guys in green. I'll fly away and leave my troubles. And all of a sudden the reality is there that maybe you won't make it. I was thirty years old. I was a hot stuff, I had a car, driver, villa with a swimming pool, hot stuff. And all of a sudden it really comes home quickly.
Then I find people--I lose track of time about that time, and a lot of us did. You say what did you do on April 15th? If somebody can tell you, they kept a diary. LeGroh probably kept a diary. I didn't. But from that point on with what we started to do in essense was, get ready to get out. We shredded files. We not only shredded our intelligence files, we shredded -- the guy that worked for me who was a photo interpreter that worked for me -- my guys worked down in CIC-V, helped Vietnamese obtain imagery of their own country and the forces therein and helped them figure it out. (It's their intelligence center.) We went up to our personnel department. The personnel people had been up talking, probably now, I can't remember if I pulled a gun on him or his second.
Well, what we had done, we had gone up to the Vietnamese side of the house and saw that they had not shredded the Vietnamese people that were working for us, at least intelligence side, so Harry Johnson, the guy who worked for me, and myself stood up there for three hours and shredded paper until we were literally knee deep in paper. Just to be sure that if anybody stayed behind -- my time frame is not compressing toward the end. I think I went in and told Hicks or his deputy, I walked in and wanted to get my file. I didn't want my file in the boxes.
I said, I'm Neal O'Leary, Cornelius F. O'Leary. I'm here to get my files. "Well I'm sorry you can't have them." And the only time I ever pulled a gun was on an American, and I reached for my 38 -- and if you're interested in why we carried guns I'll give you my story -- and it was "Oh, help yourself." And with precognition, I went over to a single box and a single file and pulled my file out. I took my personal file all the way back to the states with me. Hand carried it. Never let anybody touch it. I never had any problem. I got paid and I had annual leave.
Q. Why you carried the gun?
I never carried a gun in Vietnam. There's an interesting character, Jim Wink. He's worth talking to. He lives in Reston somewhere.
Jim always carried a gun. I refused to carry a weapon, because if you are going to carry it you better be ready to use it, and I am not ready to kill anybody, until about two weeks before the place fell and it really got testy out there. You had a moral breakdown of the society itself, which was odd, because the Vietnamese are really a pretty structured society and crime is done by the lower classes, that's it. But you had incidents of people stopping you at barricades even with your curfew pass, kind of hinting for money. In the final days you had ARVN military officers walking with handguns down the halls of the DAO and you didn't know what they were doing. Normally they weren't there and they were never armed. But they were armed then.
The hooches that were next to the PX that were Vietnamese barracks, they had put a couple guys, the Vietnamese would kind of act offensive, harassing people going between what was Dodge City and the PX and the gym which was being used as a staging area. They stopped me and said, "Give me your watch." I said, "Why do you need the watch?" "Give me the watch. You're not going to need your watch, you're leaving country." "I'm not leaving country." And he kind of gave me this eye and I looked up on this balcony and there were two guys. I don't remember if they had the machine gun, or they were armed. I just looked and said, "Don't worry about it." And I reached in my shirt and showed them my 38 and reached in my bag and pulled out a Uzzi which I had gotten from a friend. And he just, "Oh, that's fine." And I said, "You and I are going to fight to the end. So don't worry. I'll be right here. You and I can use the watch together." And that eased, at least for me, that tension.
Within hours, whoever was commanding the marines who were helping us evacuate stationed a kid with a machine gun or automatic weapon at the spot.
Q. When did you start carrying?
About two weeks prior because it was more -- the enemy at that time were the local Vietnamese, they were not the North Vietnamese. At that time, there were X number of corps surrounding Saigon. Saigon was a besieged city. It was a matter of time until it fell . And the manner in which it fell was unknown to us other than that it was a stranglehold. But you have my next door neighbor who takes his mustang and goes to Da Lat right through the third Corps, so. He just wanted to go to Da Lat. I said, you can't go to Da Lat. He said, I just went.
Q. An American?
Yeah. An American contractor who was my next door neighbor waved to me when I left. I said, "Chuck, you going to get going?" Oh, I'll go in a couple weeks ??(days???). It takes on a very surrealistic view.
If you are interested about Vietnam now, I can't tell you much about it. The two weeks or three weeks prior to me leaving was spent in one surreptitious exit of not only Americans from Vietnam, but of Vietnamese intelligence staffs start to go. We got on a bus late at night, the Americans armed, women and children in the buses, the men slid under the seat. We'd go on to Tan Son Nhut air base to a U.S. military airplane. And we're stopped at the gate, the gate guard comes on and basically says, "What is this?" "It's medical evacuees." "Oh, okay." Because he's been told-- they had a deal with the base commander if I'm not mistaken, the base commander and all the guards could leave country via aircraft if the U.S. got what we wanted in the way of getting people out of the country.
I can't remember the date, but the CIA, the DAO, basically got the majority of their employees out in a large night run.
Q. Many days before you went out?
Q. I talked to several people who live out in California about that.
We then continued to move our people. We got them into what the called "Dodge City", a bunch of unused barracks buildings by the PX and we just basically moved our people that way. For every aircraft that went our, ten or twenty seats were held open for the Vietnamese intelligence folks and we would walk them onto the loading bus to get out onto the plane. Most of us at that time were basically on pills, bennies, dexies, anything to stay awake. Sleeping in the gym at the desk.
(((ENd of side A.)))
(((Begin side B.)))
. . . I'd love to say it's because I'm a wonderful intelligence officer and I knew they weren't going to do it. I made a calculated wager that it wouldn't do them any good to hold us all hostage, in other words, rush into the city, take us en mass and say "Okay, I've got you, what are you going to do now?" It seemed to be a stranglehold. It seemed to be a static offense, not a classic siege in any case, but more of a static offense. I really didn't think I was going to be captured by the North Vietnamese.
Q. How about killed by a South Vietnamese?
Yes, absolutely. I didn't know if I was going to be killed, but always in the back of your mind was what were they going to do, the South Vietnamese, when they realized you really were cutting and running. And let's face it, the Americans are going before the Vietnamese. Bill LeGroh, the military officers will not leave. You will stay with us. You will leave when we leave, but you are not going to leave your troops. Wonderful, patriotic, but not necessarily realistic. When everybody was leaving every minute possible.
We were told for instance we could only move our people that worked directly for us and DAO. We moved all of those. But it's heart rendering to have somebody that you worked with who is on the J2 staff, or was on the J2 staff as a translator, or an interrogator, come up to you and say, I need to get out. I know you won't take me, but will you take my family? And you have to look at them and say no. And two days later you find out everybody and their uncle is leaving by any means possible.
I evacuated a marine that I met there who was one of the guys who came in to do perimeter security,--marine or Air Force, I can't remember. We had Air Force security guys in our villa to swim, so one of the guys met him and said, "Come on, don't go down to the bars, come over here." So we had a very good entree with all the Air Force security guys through this casual connection. And I think it was a Marine Corps captain and myself moved our girlfriends and other friends in the back of the reefer truck. We just borrowed the truck. Went out the gate, got them at two pickup points, put them in the back of the truck, closed the door, drove to the gate, waved at the guard, opened the back of the truck in the back of Dodge City, put the people in with our Vietnamese people and moved them.
Q. The girls and their families?
The girls and their families.
Q. So in the end it depended for a lot of Vietnamese on who you knew.
It's a series of casual connections at that time.
Q. Then the situation gets tighter because the N. Vietnamese hit Newport Bridge on the night of the 28th.
Q. That's right. When did you leave?
I don't know. It fell officially, when, the 29th?
Q. No, the 30th, eleven o'clock in the morning.
Q. You left before Frequent Wind?
Q. So you must have left on the 28th, because he last C130s go out the evening of the 28th. They attack the airstrip at 4:45 on the evening of the 28th and destroy that.
I went out on the 26th or 27th.
Q. Tell me about leaving.
It was fun, just absolutely delightful. We hadn't slept in three days. We ate sandwiches and this, and you're stomach is upset and you've been popping pills to stay awake. All of our personnel are moved. My boss, myself, Harry Johnson, my photo interpreter, we all met with LeGroh and we said, "Boss, we basically have moved all that want to move. There are some that don't want to move and we are not forcing anybody. But basically the bulk of them are all gone. You're going to have some that come in and say, 'I changed my mind', but as far as we're concerned we feel all of our people are safe."
And LeGroh says, "Fine." He has the administrative officer cut us new orders. Then Lt. Colonel Ed Fletcher, myself and Harry Johnson have orders that now read, "Go to Guam and go to the Philippines and check for our people and make sure they are identified and make sure they get preferential treatment, if possible."
We take off in the back of a palletized C130, packed with Vietnamese. And we were all just -- you might as well have moved a pig sty. It was just horrendous. There was no room to lie down, it was that jam packed. They were all sitting cross legged, loaded that way. And I finally just figured I'm going to be the nasty round-eye, I'm tired. I helped move these people. They owe me a spot. And I just kind of leaned back and woke up in Philippines with my good counterpart Harry Johnson talking to me and saying, "Neal, I forgot to get rid of my .45." So I get him and I go up to the crew chief, and Harry opens the bag, and in only that style Harry can do, reaches in the bag and pulls out the .45. The crew chief almost wet himself. I said, "No, wait a minute, he wants to give you the weapon. We don't want the weapon. We have no desire."
So we got rid of our weapons and then our goal was to go to Philippines and to Guam and try to identify our people and make sure they were getting at least good treatment. Sometimes it helps if only it's a friendly face. And that's basically what we did.
Q. What's the last thing you saw in Vietnam? Did you have the feeling that I'm leaving at a turning point in history?
I think I was too tired to worry about it. The emotional drain was there. I had left friends. The only satisfaction I had was pouring sugar into the gas tank of my motorcycle and watching my maid go crazy because I was destroying sugar and my driver loving it because he knew what I was doing.
Q. Were the Vietnamese crying on the plane or was it quiet?
It was quiet. There was a murmur. Gross generalization--anybody in an unknown situation tends to be quiet. You don't really have people yelling and screaming, so what you had was a very quiet C130.
I can't remember. I went in base OPS and I'll never forget the guy -- I keep meeting him but I can't remember his name-- sitting up there drinking San Miguel and basically coordinating the aircraft going in and out.
Q. Did you find what you were looking over when you went over?
I think so. I think the parallels were there. I never wrote the book, but that's all right.
Q. What are the parallels?
I think the most outstanding one is, if there is a lesson to be learned, in a country that is underdeveloped, or whatever the polite terms are any more, but an economically depressed country, leadership can not isolate themselves from the people.
Q. And you felt that's what the government was doing?
Yeah. It didn't know what it was doing. It played politics for so long it failed to remember that the real game was saving the country. And what they did was they very effectively saved themselves, but not their country.
Q. Tragedy? Do you think in those terms?
It's hard because there's the political scientist in me that says, this has happened over and over again. The European sold out Poland two or three times. As an American I am not proud of Vietnam because I really think that you can't have an ally for twenty years and then say, "Well the war isn't going the way I like it. I have riots at home and I think we are going to call a cease fire and leave."
You have a whole generation that knows you, depends on you as the round-eyed American, and you have people going back three and four times, so there is more than just a casual military relationship. There is an emotional relationship of a lot of the military, and a lot of civilians in the government that worked there and a lot of the contractors had a commitment to the country. Not just an economic or financial, but a real commitment. I want to make this work and I want them to make it work. And proud that the Vietnamese were doing so well with microwave transmission and maintenance here, and just little things like that. And then it's just, "Bam, see you." And the page closes on the book and there ends the chapter of America in Vietnam.
A new chapter opens and there is no Vietnam and there's fifty-five thousand Americans dead there. That doesn't bother me too much, we kill that many on the highways in two years. Not quite as selectively, but you can emotionally get rid of the death rates rather easily because you kill more other ways. But I think it's a stain in the sense that we deserted an ally.
It surely didn't do too much for NATO confidence. It's interesting to take a look at the world reaction to us. The undercurrent, not necessarily what was out in public, but the undercurrent was, "What are they going to do now? We know they are traumatized as a country, and I will bet they cannot react in x number of years in any rational manner external to their own country." Isolationism has set in. And it did. We didn't do things. And congress put limits on what the intelligence section can do, the intelligence community could do, and rightfully in many cases. But in may cases, I think we have emasculated ourselves, but it was a trauma that the American political system had to go through so that you are no longer -- as I say, we're 2, 1 and 1. We won World War I and we won World War II. We had a draw in Korea and we lost Vietnam. It really is the first war that we lost. 1812, the war with no name doesn't count. That's kind of an anticlimax to the Revolutionary War.
And I think it made the American citizens much more mature and realistic as to its capabilities, the you just couldn't put masses of money and people and equipment in a country and win. The military is just an option of politics. It may be the final option, or maybe an intermediate option, but it is not an end in itself. And I think that's where we missed in Vietnam. It became an end in itself.
Q. Neal, what did you feel about the newsmen?
Mike Marriott I met very indirectly through Doug Dearth. I had no qualms. Frustrating at times, but the frustration I had with the news was somewhat simple. Murray was the one that voiced it. We had a report of a Vietnamese selling space on medivac helicopters, down in MR3 or MR4, I can't remember. General John Murray and the ambassador, in '74, stopped that report from going out. And it was my responsibility to ask why did you do that? And the word we got back at that time, I really had to do some thinking about it, but the rationale was this, that one report--is it widespread, is it all the helicopter pilots, or are we focusing in on one guy or two aircraft? What's the impact of that on the front page of the New York Times. Everybody looks and says, "The sons-of-bitches are doing it again. Why are we helping them?" Then we said, "Now take the heroism of Truong in MR1 or the unit here that did this. How do you balance it out?" And it was a hard decision for an intelligence officer because my job is to collect information, analyze it into intelligence and put it back for decision making. It may not be the truth, but this is what we believe. So we had that kind of slicing off of selected information.
Q. How did you stop the story from going out?
Just didn't publish the report.
Q. Oh, I see. It was an intelligence report.
The parallel there is with the newsman that comes in the country and focuses in on --"Are you anti-war? Fine, I'm anti-war." And he focuses in on bar girls, cocaine, heroin to the troops, the selling of places in the ARVN, or whatever, and all that and not giving a balanced picture and not being able to say, "Well, by the same token, - - -" But you had some really good journalists as well.
Q. Have you been to the Vietnam memorial?
No, I have not.
Q. That's usually my last question. Have I left anything out that strikes you looking back?
No. To go back to that again, it is always a circle. I don't know what I can give to you because my slice is almost my slice and my interaction.
Q. Everybody's is. Some lay claim to it being more, but it really isn't.
Did you have access to the DAO safe? You heard about Murray's finding one report on the lives of the American military officers, the other on the lives of the journalists, that he destroyed? Murray and somebody found detailed reports on the bar habits of the American reporters and the military officers.
He discovered that some of the journalists had been trading drugs to troops for stories. He said the only time he was sorry he destroyed the files was when Westmoreland came, and then he wished he'd had them.
What was your background? Where were you born?
New York City. Cornelius X.
Q. Graduated from high school in New York?
Hastings on the Hudson, New York, West Chester. Arsinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. You can't ask for a smaller school. Majored in history and political science with an idea and a desire to teach secondary education.
Q. How did you get in the CIA?
I got drafted right out of college in 1966. And I had my degree. I pushed my draft up because I wanted to go to Vietnam. I didn't know where it was but I wanted to go because people were fighting there, and I was not a sole surviving son, but my father had died when I was thirteen. So I got drafted, went into intelligence because I took all the tests. Other than the radio man because I could never get the dots and dashes, so they looked at me and said you can do anything you want to do but you can't be a radio man.
So I said, "I want to be a 96B20 combat intelligence analyst." He said, "You got friends in the service?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Fine, with your eyes that's all you can be." So I got to be an intelligence analyst and spent 1967 and 68 in Korea. Was there for the raid on the blue house and the stealing of the Pueblo, which was another story, and at that point in time was enjoying intelligence and found out that you could starve to death being a teacher and make a lot of money being an intelligence officer. Without telling secrets.
Q. I'm surprised, these spies, Boyce, etc, never made that much money.
They normally don't. The Soviets don't give out hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Q. A hundred thousand dollars in cash for the secrets of our submarines, divided four ways, is not good.
They would have done better robbing a bank, because I think the pickup rate at least in New York is six percent of the bank robbers--or the conviction rate, so they would have done better robbing a bank.
Q. My sister's a lawyer, works for GE and has security clearance. And she says the best way to stop spying is to ask your employees with security clearances if they have financial problems and give them low interest loans.
There is more than truth to that.
Q. So you stayed in the DIA after the Army?
Basically. I bummed around for a little bit. I was an enlisted man, a draftee. I went up to E-5 and got out and basically came back from Korea and I always remember when Czechoslovakia was invaded in 1968, because I arrived in the United States in August the day the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. I had three months left on the tour of a two-year draft in the United States Army, here I am an intelligence analyst and obviously they want intelligence analysts in Europe, and they are going to tell me that they are going to put me in winter gear or something and send me over to Czechoslovakia. It didn't happen that way. Somebody with a sense of humor hires me in DIA on St. Paddy's Day, 1969.
Q. That's a great story, a good story. ((Counter 254)))
(( Some talk about Jacobsen and the Tet offensive story.))
((End of tape at ctr. 258)))